Thumbs Up: The Sonata is now a class leader in style, value and comfort.
Thumbs Down: Steering is vague with too much play.
Buy This Car If: You want a solid value in a stunning family sedan.
Before this week, the last time I’d driven a Hyundai Sonata was in 2007. Back then, the Sonata was comfortable enough, and the middle-of-the-road styling offended no one, but it was clearly a car built to a price point. Sure, it was relatively quiet and rattle free, but the car felt like it was the integration of components designed by separate countries. The engine’s ECU, for example, spoke Italian. The transmission, on the other hand, spoke Portuguese. Sometimes one would understand what the other was asking for, sometimes not. It always made for adventure when you stepped on the accelerator, since you never really knew what was going to happen. As for handling, the most praise that I could give the 2007 Sonata was that it didn’t do anything seriously wrong.
I’m happy to say that times have changed at Hyundai, and all the components in the new 2011 Sonata now speak the same language. In fact, the entire car seems to be unified with a common purpose: unseat the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord as the best selling import sedans in the United States. Is the Sonata a legitimate challenger? Can it deliver Camry or Accord level comfort and performance at a lower price point? Yes it can, and I was truly impressed at how far Hyundai has come in just a few short years.
Take a look at the exterior, and the first thing you realize is that Hyundai isn’t copying anyone with the styling on the 2011 Sonata. The shape is organic and flowing, very Japanese in feel but clearly unique from anything in Toyota or Honda’s lineup. The low roofline and flowing A and C pillars give the car a sporty but elegant look, aided by the sculpted character line that begins at the front fender and wraps to the taillights. Remove the badging and ask the average person who penned the design, and I’d bet you’d hear a lot of “Mercedes” or “Lexus” responses. What you wouldn’t hear is “Hyundai”.
Inside, the upscale treatment continues. My Limited version tester came complete with leather seating and the factory nav system. Front seats are supportive and feature relatively thick side bolsters for spirited driving, and the driver’s seat is electronically adjustable. It even features a power lumbar support and both front seats are heated for cold weather comfort. Rear seat passengers won’t shiver when the temps drop, since they get heated rear seats as well. They even get their own A/C vents and a center armrest with additional cup holders. Rear seats fold in a 60/40 split, and the ample trunk features a large pass-through for hauling oversized cargo.
Grab the tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and you can tell that Hyundai put some serious effort into designing the Sonata’s ergonomics. The leather wrapped, four spoke wheel is designed to encourage proper 10 and 2 hand positioning, and controls for the audio, phone, cruise and driver information display are well positioned. The dash is an tasteful blend of textured plastic, aluminum colored plastic and piano black trim, with just a bit of chrome used to offset the black. If wood is your thing, you can opt for wood grain trim instead of black, but I prefer the look of the high gloss black myself. Controls for the audio and nav are atop the center console, and both systems are simple enough that even new users will quickly be comfortable with operation. The HVAC controls, below the infotainment controls, are icon based and easy to understand. The dual climate control uses knobs instead of a digital display, which allows for quick adjustment of cabin temperature for driver and passenger preferences. The truly anal-retentive types may complain that you can’t set the temperature to the exact degreee, but who cares? The system works just fine as Hyundai designed it.
The instruments in the Sonata include a left mounted tachometer (with an LCD temp gauge insert), a right mounted speedometer (with a gear indicator and fuel gauge insert) and a central, LCD driver information display. Start up and shut down give the driver an animated Sonata graphic, just one more indication that Hyundai is proud of what they’ve accomplished with the Sonata.
Press the start button, shift the car into gear, and you’ll see where Hyundai has made their greatest improvements. The Sonata is a little sluggish off the line, but the car picks up speed nicely above 10 miles per hour. You’d almost think there’s a six cylinder under the hood, instead of the 2.4 liter, 198 horsepower, direct-injection four, which definitely speaks the same language as the six speed automatic transmission. The transmission is a shiftable automatic, which allows the driver to select his own gear for the road or weather conditions, and shifts are surprisingly quick given the Sonata Limited’s non-sporting nature. Zero to sixty happens in just under 8 seconds, and the Sonata with the six speed automatic is rated at 22 MPG city, 35 MPG highway. In city driving, I saw 24.2 MPG without trying to be conservative. If the 2.4 liter Sonata isn’t fast enough for you, a twin-scroll turbo version, good for 274 horsepower, will be available later this year. If the 2.4 liter Sonata’s fuel economy isn’t good enough for you, Hyundai will be launching a hybrid version of the new Sonata at the end of the year. By early next year, there will be a Sonata for just about every type of family sedan shopper.
My only gripe about the 2011 Sonata was the steering, which had far too much play and too little effort at low speeds for my liking. Most drivers probably won’t notice, but I felt that the lack of steering feel let down what was otherwise a superb platform. No, the Hyundai Sonata Limited is not a sport sedan, but it is every bit as capable as a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry when the road gets twisty. Perhaps the more sport-oriented SE version has tighter steering to go with its unique suspension tuning, but the Sonata’s steering is the single weak point of an otherwise superb effort from Hyundai.
My Sonata Limited had a base price of $26,015 including delivery charge. Options on my tester included the $2,100 Navigation Package (High Resolution Touchscreen Display, Infinity Premium Speakers, Subwoofers, External Amplifier, XM Radio), the $200 Pearl White Paint, the $100 Carpeted Floor Mats and the $35 iPod Integration Cable, for a sticker price of $28,450.00. That may seem steep for Hyundai, but bear in mind that this is a Sonata with virtually every option box checked. A 2011 Sonata SE, with the same options as my Limited, would only set you back $26,250. By comparison, a comparably equipped Honda Accord would run $30,305 for the four cylinder EX-L with nav. A comparable Toyota Camry would run $29,686.
In under twenty years, Hyundai has gone from being the new kid on the block, selling disposable cars on price alone, to building cars that rival the best that Japan has to offer. Their sales have grown accordingly as well, with the 2011 Hyundai Sonata now outselling the Honda Accord in the United States. Sales of the Sonata are so brisk, as a matter of fact, that Hyundai has had to ramp up production at its Montgomery, Alabama plant. They’ve also farmed out production of the Santa Fe crossover to Kia, just so they can build enough Sonatas to meet U.S. customer demand. That should give you an idea of just how good the new Sonata is.